Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Twenty

The minute she stepped into the room for their final mission brief mid-morning, Harrison could tell that there was something. It wasn't exactly something wrong with her so much as it was different. For one thing, she was late. Their team lead was never late. He could see apprehension combined with a terrible excitement, the kind of buzz she'd get in the final day or so before she was sent on a hit, in that adrenaline high that started ramping up before she shut down emotion and channeled everything into single-minded focus. This kind of mission didn't typically spike her. It was a property extraction, not an assassination. Either their plans had changed for the top, or she had changed hers. At T-minus damned little, either option worried him.

"Okay, people, the good news is that we only have one change. The bad news is that it's a major, fundamental mission change," she said.

I knew it, the fixer thought. From the look on his face, his brother was just now registering the rising "oh shit" level in the room. It wasn't that George was any slower to pick up on emotional cues than the rest of them, just that he hadn't worked as much with Cally as the rest of them had.

"The change shouldn't affect anybody but Harrison and me. We've got a second mission with a rush on it. It has to be tomorrow morning and it has to be me. The good news is it's uncomplicated and I should be able to handle it with no help but a driver."

"What the hell do you think you're talking about?" O'Neal, Senior, drawled. He was without his usual plug of tobacco this morning. Probably only out of a rare inability to find a cup. Harrison winced. Nicotine withdrawal tended to make him . . . volatile. "There is no mission that could possibly justify haring off—"

"Pardal." She dropped the one word into the room like a stone. The kind of stone that might explode if you breathed on it too hard.

"A Darhel?" Papa was on his feet now. "Are they out of their tiny minds? No mission prep, no backup, and they drop it on us now? After telling us all these years why the precious Darhel were above all possible retribution, they drop this? No way. No fucking way. Sure, we'll kill him, if they're finally taking the damn gloves off. But after, with full prep, full backup—we'll do it the right way and not go in half-assed and not only miss the target but get you killed besides. What in the hell are they thinking? Scratch that, what the hell are you thinking? Why didn't you tell them to shove it up their ass?!"

Harrison honestly didn't know if he preferred Papa shouting or dead quiet. Either way was usually not a good sign. Right now, the O'Neal's Irish skin was somewhere between broiled shrimp and steamed lobster. His own stomach grumbled, and he realized that his choice of metaphors probably had something to do with skipping breakfast. Which was a bizarre thing to be thinking about given the turn the mission was taking.

"Papa, I'd like to hear the mission constraints and plans, if you don't mind, since I'm the lucky boy slated to share this little gem of a buggy ride," he heard himself say.

The older man harrumphed, which wasn't nearly as effective when done by a peach fuzzed juv instead of a grizzled geezer. He did, however, sit down and quit shouting. Harrison leaned back, arms crossed, and quirked a sardonic eyebrow at the stacked brunette. He really had done a great job with her hair.

"The reasons are easy enough, but they don't go outside this room. If I didn't think it would shake you out of peak efficiency to worry about what's going on, I wouldn't figure you three had a need to know." She inclined her head towards his teammates.

O'Neal, Senior, started to puff up, but Harrison forestalled him with a raised hand.

"Fine, we've all got need to know. And?" He knew that in the military he'd have been bordering on insolence, or worse, but despite certain similarities to some special warfare units, this wasn't the military, and the proposal was so harebrained he'd sure like to hear any reasons that could justify it.

"The Tchpth commissioned his elimination, and they specified me." She took the trouble to get the awkward word out as close to correctly as she could.

"They wha—?" Harrison was surprised his own mouth opened first. "Cally, this is a bad time to joke."

"Okay, all of you. Shut the fuck up and listen." She was fairly impressive when her temper started to kick in.

"Aelool and O'Reilly, both, met this Crab, know who he is, and are convinced that this is coming from the highest levels of whatever functions as their government. Aelool is convinced. That's all I need to know about authenticity of the orders or permission or whatever you want to call it. Frankly, I'd dance across a tightrope thirty stories up, backwards, if it meant I'd finally get to kill one of those poisonous little pricks, and any of you would, too. Now we get to the timing." She grimaced.

"I told O'Reilly it had to be tomorrow because, Pardal being into the dirty crap of our other mission up to his pointy ears, the security walls will go up on the other target if we don't hit them damned near simultaneously. The truth is, I'm afraid if we delay it, the Crabs will change their bouncy little minds. Tell me a chance to take out one of the fucking Elves themselves, finally, isn't worth a damned big risk. Besides, I can do this and get out. I figure eighty percent or so. Second, I'm the most expendable operative on the main mission. I'm along because I'm good in a tight situation and you didn't dare leave me behind. Tell me I'm not right."

They were all quiet for one of those timeless gaps when everybody's preconceptions get sucked into a contemplative bog.

"If this wasn't the dumbest, most dangerous stunt I'd ever heard of—just supposing for a minute—how would you kill him?" Papa growled.

"The most deniable way. I'm gonna piss him off."

"Yeah—you might want to rethink. Wild rumors aside, you got any idea how hard that is? Or, how fucking suicidal? I've seen video of a Darhel after pushing the button to kill a Posleen globe—before he hit lintatai. The entire Indowy bridge crew, those who hadn't found other places to be, were casualties. I've watched the old Bane Sidhe's debriefings and clandestine recordings of what an enraged adolescent Darhel can do in the moments between when he cuts loose, before he goes catatonic with lintatai. A terminally pissed off Darhel takes the 'dead man's ten seconds' to a whole other level. One clip has two adolescent Darhel ripping each other limb from limb in about the time it would take you to tie your shoe. Those teeth aren't for show," George said.

"I'll be watching all of that material, and more, tonight. Lintatai is the only possible way to kill him without making it obvious someone killed him. We don't know enough about their metabolism to poison him undetectably. Amend that, we could shoot him up with Tal if we had Tal. We don't. I'm not sure the Indowy even know how to make it, and the Crabs didn't conveniently volunteer any. So he rages around the room and I stay ahead of him. I may be stuck in this ridiculous body, but I'm still upgraded, and people move even faster in the first few seconds after the brain cocktail in Provigil-C hits, if they aren't dead tired to start."

"And the reason we don't use it as a battle drug for the speed is its tendency to give people who are already awake such a bad case of the shakes that for the next thirty minutes they're next to worthless in combat."

"Yup. But I don't have to fight him. I just have to stay ahead of him for fifty-eight seconds and then make it down the stairs. If I die, I'm just a crazy Darhel-conspiracist bitch who got lucky. And unlucky. That's the other reason I need you, Harrison. You're going to have to patch me up and pretty me up enough to make it through the interview, if it can be done. If something goes wrong, George gets a call from his girlfriend saying she's got car trouble and has to reschedule."

"I hate to say this, Papa, but it could work," Tommy said, breaking his silence for the first time.

"I know. That's what pisses me off the most." His teammate looked more like a short, muscular, red-headed fireplug than he did like Cally, especially since her whole external appearance had been worked over seven years ago, but he was reacting more like her grandfather than her teammate. "We don't have the slab anymore. Dead's dead. And I notice the Crabs aren't busting their humps bringing it back, either," Papa said.

"And wouldn't we all love to have it back? You've just brought up one more reason for doing this. The Crabs operate on favors, part of a whole 'nother chunk of Galactic economy nobody bothered to tell us about. It would be nice to have them owe us one. This mission is worth the added risks all the way around." She never missed a chance to push a point home.

"Even if it fucks up the primary operation and your sister dies?"

"The message included something that had to come from her; this particular Crab is one of her buddies. She's in it up to her ears, and we're just going to have to trust her, too."

"Michelle, too?" O'Neal groused. "But I still don't like it."

"Neither do I," Cally said, but Harrison knew she was lying. Correcting the Darhel Pardal's respiratory problem would appeal perfectly to her unslaked need for revenge, for the death of a mother, the loss of a father, and more other things than he could count. Now that he thought about it that way, he wouldn't trade his own spot on this mission for the world. He could think of a few things his family owed to the Darhel, too.

"Yeah, but what if Pardal doesn't take the bait?" his brother spoke up.

Cally shrugged, "George, you're one of the people who's always insisting I piss off too many people, and without trying. We O'Neals have certainly never tried to piss off the Darhel, as a race. Seem to have done it, though."

Harrison thought she was taking liberties with the truth there. The O'Neal family had never exactly tried not to piss off the Darhel, either. Not that they should.

"Can I get the bastard to lose it when I am trying?" she continued. "Not a problem."

"We're done except for me and you, Tommy." The team lead placed a small hand on their star geek's arm as the others left. "I'm gonna need a lot of that research information George mentioned. You don't have time to do it; you've got to get out of here. I need you to pick me the best cyber guy to assemble my on-the-fly field guide to Darhel behavior for tonight. There's no time for techie versus nontechie misunderstandings. I need you to sit in while I explain what I need and translate whatever needs translating, then you need to get moving."

"A whole species' behavior in one night. Is that all?" The big man's mouth had an ironic twist.

"Oh, you," she said, punching him in the shoulder. "I've got my wish list down to reasonable proportions. For the researcher and me, both. I know exactly what I need."

The "computer guy," as it turned out, was a tiny, fifteen-year-old girl with tangled brown hair and a splash of freckles across her nose, who asked precise questions, jotted notes, and—from the way she repeated back the details of what Cally wanted—hadn't needed anybody to translate for her in the first place. Mendy Wimms went on the assassin's list of people to expect big things from.

She herself went on Mendy's list of people to expect unbalanced things from, about the time she started skipping away down the hall singing like some manic, killer child, "I get to kill a Darhel, I get to kill a Darhel!"

Wimms overheard Harrison mumble something to his little brother as their team leader vanished around a corner. "We're never going to live this down, you know," he said.

Friday 12/10/54

The Indowy Aelool would have preferred almost anything to the situation he now had to face. It was one in the morning, local time, and he was dreading the coming interview with the human O'Neal. Aelool had not become the head of his own clan without having the strictest and most exquisite niceties of courtesy and propriety drilled into his head. The action he was now contemplating trampled all over the social rules with an almost human degree of obliviousness. No, to be fair, the human O'Reilly would never have done what Aelool was about to do. He had, after all, not spoken a word of the matter to Aelool himself in seven years. Surely he must have known. Humans were not often so discreet about private clan matters, and his human counterpart's tact had rather impressed him. It had been so tempting to interfere. In any case, he now waited in the special room for sitting that humans needed to share personal meetings with him. Nervous, he did not sit.

The O'Neal's eyes displayed an uncharacteristic vividness of the blood vessels in the whiter areas of his eyes. It looked strange. He also must have been weary, because he was being less careful about concealing his teeth with his lips. Aelool repressed a shudder.

"What was so important at this hour of the morning, Aelool? Sorry to be grumpy, but I'd just gotten to sleep," the orange-topped omnivore said.

"First, I most deeply regret the breach of protocol involved in approaching you on so private a clan matter. Please be assured that I have made every effort to respect your privacy in this, and to confine the distribution of any reports as much as possible. I am aware, from your own reticence, that you regard this as an extremely private clan matter, and I wouldn't have spoken of this matter with you or any other if I did not believe you needed this information. Please, forgive me in advance if I am mistaken. It is most certainly not my desire to be discourteous or disrespectful to the O'Neal or to the Clan O'Neal." He stopped speaking and waited for the response from the other clan head, to indicate if Aelool should continue, or should politely terminate the discussion.

"Aelool, I'm sorry if I'm not answering right, but I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about. Could you please try to explain in plain English? Sorry if I'm slow on the uptake, but I'm still half asleep."

The human was looking more wakeful by the second, but presumably this was part of their protocol for such situations.

"It involves your household granddaughter's breeding partner. Forgive me so much for intruding. Normally, when we intercept such a message, we file it flagged to your eyes only and leave it in the personal storage system for you to access or not, as you choose. In this case, the courier that was supposed to deliver the message to your granddaughter has suffered a misfortune—none of our doing, I assure you! If I did not broach the matter with you, the message might never reach Miss O'Neal, and the contents are so sensitive I judged I must personally bring it to your attention. Again, I am so sorry to intrude into Clan O'Neal's privacy."

If he had not known better, Aelool would have interpreted the human O'Neal's facial expression as bewilderment. Since that was clearly impossible, the Indowy was at a loss. Unsure of whether he had irretrievably blundered or not, he simply placed a data cube in the human O'Neal's hand and bowed, withdrawing to his and his roommates' sleeping quarters and closing the door behind him.

Aelool did not see the human insert the cube into the reader slot of his buckley, nor did he hear him mutter, "I'm gonna kill her," under his breath before he left the room. He would never have admitted to it if he had seen and heard such a thing. Nevertheless, he sincerely hoped that the human O'Neal would not do anything permanent to Cally O'Neal. He was rather fond of her. Did humans take poison in such cases? It was a very private clan matter, of course, and the Indowy had insufficient versing with human xenopsychology to understand why the O'Neal was vexed with his granddaughter over the contents of the message, but the Indowy was fond of her—for an omnivore. Still, it was a very private clan matter, and apparently the human O'Neal had not taken irreparable offense at the Indowy Aelool's presumption. That was something. It would, however, be disastrous if the O'Neal passed a judgment against his clan member before she completed her assigned work. Disastrous on top of regrettable. And the O'Neal was so volatile, too. Aelool went back to bed, worrying.

Cally was only a touch bleary this morning. She'd been able to whittle down the material Mendy turned up for her to only a few key scenes, and had watched them over and over again.

One of the key features that would enable what she was about to do was a project R&D had been developing to enhance human communication with Indowy. Humans had the problem, dealing with both Indowy and Darhel, of lacking mobile ears. The project involved having an AID or a buckley track the motion of its user's body and head, in real time, and track electrical impulses sent from behind a human subject's ears, using them to project a holographic set of mobile ears that would respond to the human's conscious, and subconscious, commands. Human ears were not, it turned out, completely immobile. Their mobility was simply so restricted that the ears did not noticeably move. The impulses were still there, in the nerves, still responding to the age-old evolutionary cues of mammals past—and to conscious control.

Conscious control of the holographic ears took weeks of practice. In Cally's case, she had that practice. She had been an early test subject for the project while on maternity leave. It had been a few extra bucks for baby's new pair of shoes and such, when she'd badly needed the money.

R&D had only intended to use the device between human and Indowy, and only if it improved the communication and comfort level between the two species. It hadn't. Indowy, it developed, were happier not knowing the emotional states of their human friends. The research had been consigned to the trash bin of good ideas that just didn't work out. Until now.

No Darhel had ever seen a human with mobile ears. That was advantage one. Advantage two was the information-tracking software that let a buckley PDA superimpose realistic holographic ears on a human head also gave her buckley enough information to superimpose the rest of a holographic face, as well. Her buckley could not make her look like a Darhel, not ever enough to pass for one of them, especially when there were so relatively few in circulation. However, she didn't need to pass for a Darhel—not to another Darhel's conscious mind. She only needed to look enough like one, for just a bare instant, to fool the visceral mind about what it saw, before its better judgment kicked in.

A Darhel's descent into the permanent catatonia of lintatai was triggered by a single instant of homicidally bad judgment. A Darhel who succumbed to that one instant of rage didn't get a second chance. The Darhel who survived puberty did not do so because of any reduced capacity for, or desire for, unbridled rage. He survived by analyzing all possible outcomes of a situation ahead of time, and applying carefully trained-in meditative disciplines when a situation began to take him into danger.

Adult Darhel thought of themselves as paragons of detached emotional control. It wasn't true. Any Darhel had plenty of buttons to punch, he just had nobody around to punch them. One Darhel wouldn't provoke another into lintatai because it was suicidal. He couldn't drive the other into lintatai without entering it himself. Himmit, Indowy, and Tchpth also considered deliberately provoking a Darhel to be an insanely stupid act.

They were, of course, correct. It was also correct to say that every human did at least a dozen things a Galactic would find insane every day of her life.

It had long been accepted in the human executive protection field that one can never effectively guard against a determined, competent assassin who is willing, if necessary, to lose her life in the act. The Darhel had, she suspected, never heard that particular truism. One of their number was about to learn—the hard way.

She was surprised that Granpa was at the table with Harrison when she stopped by the mess hall for a light breakfast. She was freshly showered and bare of makeup, dressed in a simple T-shirt and jeans. Her entire appearance, from top to toes, was Harrison's domain today. She had the basic canvas and equipment, but Harrison was peerless at turning the basics into whatever they required. In this case, nothing less than a world-class, breathtaking vision of beauty would suffice.

Granpa sure was looking funky. Something was wrong. "All right, spit it out. What is it?" She addressed him in the way that was most in her nature. Straight on.

"What are you talking about? I just came down to see you off at breakfast. So I'm worried about you. I'm your grandfather; it's my privilege," he said.

"Not buying it. What's really wrong?" she asked. After half a century of her reading him, he couldn't get anything by her. The reverse usually applied, as well, but wasn't the problem today.

"Harrison, could you excuse us for a minute?" Papa said, looking at his hands as he picked a fresh plug of tobacco from his pouch.

Harrison disappeared in the direction of the coffee counter.

Cally raised her eyebrows at the old man. "Well?" she asked.

"Granddaughter, dear, the next time you decide to engage in a major fucking breach of security, would you do me the kindness of telling me first? Instead of leaving me to find out years later from someone of a different fucking species at one in the morning on the day of an operation, for instance," he said.

"Oops," she said, as he glowered at her. Which was exactly what she would have expected. Exactly. Except he was overplaying it. Not much, but her sense of every detail around her was heightened to a preternatural sharpness this morning. "Now what's the other shoe?" she asked.

"You don't think that's enough?" he whispered harshly. "The Indowy have known for years that I have a son-in-law, while you've been running around behind the backs of me and Shari, not to mention your girls, and—"

"You can drop that other shoe now. We'll talk about my sins if we all survive the day. What else? Give," she demanded.

Now he looked distinctly uncomfortable. He puffed up, as if to try another layer of false bluster, then the masks dropped and there was just Granpa. An uncomfortable and unhappy looking Granpa. "I think you should wait to ask me that question tomorrow. I really think you should."

"What's the other shoe, Granpa? I'm not going to give up, because whatever it is, I'm going to be more distracted worrying about it than I would hearing it. You might as well put it on the table," she said.

When he quietly stuck a data cube on the table, she jerked back a bit. "I didn't mean it that literally, but I'll take it. Excuse me," she said, taking the cube with her to the ladies' room. Whatever it was, she apparently needed to see it in private.

A scant minute later she reemerged, stalking back to the table with her head held rigidly high. "He dear johned me? By fucking e-mail! Do you have any idea why I'm getting this third—excuse me, fourth hand?" she asked.

"Something happened to the courier. I don't know what. Aelool thought it was important enough for you to receive this message that he passed it to me. Apparently, for seven years he's believed I knew and never said anything because he considered it a private, clan matter. Which it would have been, if you'd just talked to me, you know," he said.

He looked very worried, which she supposed wasn't out of place given everything. Not that he needed to be.

"I'm sure we'll have more than enough time for that, after. Right now, don't be upset that I know about this. I'm so pissed off at the bastard that it may just give me the rage I need to survive this morning's appointment. Not to mention one hell of a lot of incentive," she growled.

"No, I'll be all right. Really. Especially since the only man I have to be around for several hours is Harrison. Which is probably a very, very good thing." She waved their openly gay teammate back over to the breakfast table, smiling a cold, brittle smile. She knew Granpa couldn't miss that she was getting dangerously wound up. He was right, but she'd be okay today. She already had someone to kill, even before lunch. "Dear johned me. E-mail! It'd probably upset the girls someday if I killed him. That's okay. I've got other people to kill today. This is good," she muttered under her breath.

Harrison was back to hear that last, and was wearing the impression of someone who'd just woken to find himself in a cage with a mother grizzly bear. And cubs. She took a deep breath and deliberately favored him with a cool smile.

"It's okay, Harrison. Really. Consider it me getting appropriately psyched for the mission. I would say you can pretty much expect this morning to go as smooth as glass, now."

The man didn't look much reassured. Right now, that was fine by her.

Back into the earliest periods of human history, missions in the nether realms of politics—the ones carried out in a dark alley or a state bedroom with a sharp knife—had involved a certain amount of gear. The tradition was unbroken. Only the specifics of the gear changed. Cally's gear had to solve a few problems that simple moxie could not. Problem one was that even though a complacent door guard could be fooled long enough for her to get close to said guard, a human receptionist very likely couldn't. Security guards mostly served to insulate their masters from stupid criminals, crazies, and salesmen. Their threat meter was very carefully focused in, even for the ones who thought it wasn't. Nobody could be hyper-vigilant forever. Weeks, months, and years of working in the same building, only encountering a specific subset of threats, inevitably had the effect on the human psyche of narrowing the range of threats the guard even thought of as possible. In the hypothetical realm where one of them would tell you about his job, this wasn't so. In the real world, it was universal. The most dangerous security guard in the world was the FNG, because he still considered everything a potential threat.

A receptionist, on the other hand, had a much wider threat range from which to insulate her charge. She had to worry about any of the aforementioned nuisances who somehow got past security, plus underlings wasting the boss's time, plus—only in the case of a human boss—wives and mistresses. The most sensitive problems with the latter usually cropped up after they were no longer wives or mistresses. Some business was not a nuisance and was legitimate. Determining which required very active judgment from a receptionist who valued her job. As a consequence, receptionists were greater threats than security guards for any mission that had to be done discreetly.

Receptionists everywhere had an absolute inability to ignore a ringing phone, regardless of whose ring tones were singing through the air. One of the assassin's smallest and simplest pieces of gear combined the ordinary sticky-camera with late twentieth-century greeting card technology to provide ding-dong ditch capabilities any ten-year-old could envy.

Her second major tool was not an item of gear, per se, but a hardware enhancement common to all operatives' PDAs. Cally didn't understand all the technical gobbledegook, herself. She wasn't a cyber, and she had her hands full keeping up with her own job. It was enough for her to know that the AIDs' transmissions back to the Darhel hierarchy's central data stores were not completely leak free. While intercepting the data itself and decoding it would be quite a trick, a properly equipped PDA within about fifteen meters of an AID could sense whenever the AID started churning out its data upload. The uploads were on a regular schedule. It was possible to get around an AID's all-seeing eye by just waiting until its upload went off and either rushing the machine or working quickly. The gap was a bit more than twenty minutes—ample for most purposes. The trick was that the more time the AID recorded before one muffled its senses, the more you had to jimmy with it to cover your tracks. A few seconds or even minutes could be forcibly erased, but it took about three times as long to erase as it did to record. This created a diminishing returns situation where, after about eight minutes, it was faster to dump the whole load of the old AID into fresh AID hardware and hope nobody noticed the hardware swap—you just stuck the fresh AID in a desk drawer or somesuch, then the cybers' wizardry did the rest. AIDs being a lot more standardized than anything of Indowy make, swapping hardware was a tiny risk—it was just damned expensive. And took nine minutes and fifty-three seconds that could get you killed.

The really critical pieces of mission-specific gear were an AID for herself, and a hush box. The latter item was a little white box that, for an AID, was the equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank. Developed after the war from a hybrid of some easier Galactic technology with common Earth know-how, many AID users carried them, and all recognized them. Most Darhel even used them, now—they wanted their verbal sparring matches private from others of their kind just as much as humans would. Paranoia was an emotion both species shared in equal measure. Pardal was on the list of Darhel confirmed to use such a box.

A chunky bracelet on her right wrist contained a mister that could be filled with any number of drugs. Operatives were routinely immunized to many drugs of the psychoactive variety. This gave a wide array of choices for an operative who wanted to affect someone at close range without being drugged herself. A simple clenching of the fist and a cool, damp cloud of dreams—sweet or otherwise—would ride in on the victim's next breath. Naturally, the most popular drugs for this were very, very fast.

Harrison had outdone himself. The woman who stepped onto the curb from the yellow cab was so conspicuously lovely that anyone seeing her would be sure he ought to recognize her from holodramas or advertisements and begin searching his mind. She was precisely the sort of beauty the Darhel typically hired to grace their offices. It was not that the Darhel found the women more than artistically appealing. Darhel understood conspicuous consumption and its relationship to power. Everything a Darhel owned or used was the best available, or, if not the best, the most ostentatious.

The black bob of George's girlfriend was intact, but glossy as a mink coat. His brother had taken the cornflower blue eyes and enhanced them with subtle cosmetic flattery into deep, hypnotic pools. Her skin was to porcelain as fine pearls were to chalk. Her figure needed precious little flattery, but Harrison had managed to imply that the body underneath the cashmere sweater-dress and impeccably cut blue coat belonged in some ancient pagan temple, not on Chicago's winter streets.

Her appearance had the predictable mind-befuddling effect on the security guard at the main door to the Sears Tower. He stopped her, and the young goddess made a great show of searching her purse for ID as she moved closer to him. Maybe she stiffened a bit, maybe she didn't. The guard straightened and let her through, his brain befuddled by a common date rape drug. He stood his post, he looked—at worst—mildly inattentive. His only thought was, most likely, that everything in his world was just hunky-dory. He wouldn't remember this morning, later, but would feel mildly happy about it.

Past the guard, the assassin slipped onto an elevator and rode it to the floor beneath her target's office. The lovely thing about this building was that it was a popular tourist site before the war. The Bane Sidhe files had extensive information on the layout of every floor, including the locations of the restrooms. She walked up to the final floor and into the ladies' room without encountering anyone else. The nature of offices and rush hours is that everyone shows up at once, usually within fifteen minutes of work start time. Arriving an hour ahead, she had passed a handful of people in the lobby, but no one else. She made a quick and careful jaunt down to another hall to place her little present for the receptionist in the shadow underneath a smoke detector, and returned to the restroom to wait.

Then she spent an hour playing solitaire before she told the buckley to start listening for AID updates. The lounge area of this restroom shared a wall with the executive office of the Darhel Pardal. Once again, Darhel decorating predictability was her friend. Darhel psychological theories held that such and such a place was the position of maximum psychological dominance in an office. That one spot and no other would hold the Darhel's desk. Other details might vary with individual tastes, or the creative idiosyncrasies of the decorator, but his desk would be in the position of maximum psychological dominance. Every time. The stall she occupied should give the buckley a detection range up to a good three meters past the farthest edge of the desk.

"I have detected an AID update transmitting," the buckley said. "Of course, I don't know how many AIDs are in there, or if the receptionist has one, or if they're having a Darhel convention, or—"

"Shut up, buckley."

"I'm just saying—"

"Shut up, buckley."


"Buckley, start ringing the phone for the receptionist. Tell me when she moves out of line of sight of Pardal's office."

"But you just told me to shut up."

"Just do it, buckley. And don't make another peep unless I'm about to get caught."

"Peep," it said. "I can think of at least nineteen ways you are about to get caught. Would you like me to list them in ascending or descending order of probability?"

"Buckley, has the receptionist moved out of line of sight of Pardal's door?"

"Moving, moving. Yes, now she is out of line of sight."

As soon as the buckley had said "moving" the assassin had begun moving, herself, leaving her coat and purse on the floor behind her. "Then shut up and stay shut," she said.


"Shut up, buckley." Cally appreciated the carpet in the hall—it muffled the clacking of her stiletto heels. She stuffed the PDA into a hidden pocket in her back waistband. It wouldn't withstand scrutiny from behind, but so what?

"Right," the buckley muttered from the small of her back.

She took the space between the ladies' and the executive office door at a sprint, instantly transforming back into cool beauty as she opened the door and stepped through.

The Darhel Pardal looked up from the figures projected on the desk and fixed her with his yellow, predator's eyes. He wore the long gray cloak typical of Darhel attire, the head thrown back to reveal his fox face. He snapped it shut.

Good, he was already pissed at the interruption. Coldly pissed, but it was a start. This was the closest thing the Darhel had to sabers at dawn; these next few seconds were make or break.

"If you have the confidence," she drawled, holding up two items, and slipping what was obviously an AID into what was equally obviously a hush box. Her body language, every vocal nuance, the words themselves—everything about that line down to the minutest detail she had crafted, practiced, and practiced again the night before. Over two and a half hours had gone into crafting and perfecting that one line, using the buckley's AI capabilities to analyze and critique her performance again, and again, and again. With the ability to craft the right performance holographically, if it had enough data, a buckley PDA was the best acting coach in the world. Her life and the whole mission rested, more than anything else, on perfection in the crafting and delivery of that first line. Sometimes, it paid to be a perfectionist.

The lateral muscles around Pardal's nose quirked in amusement. Darhel could feel amusement, in a way very like a cat playing with a mouse. Her task for the next few minutes depended on keeping him balanced on a knife's edge between amusement and anger. For that species, the two emotions were not incompatible. She restrained a sigh of relief as he slid his own AID into a hush box, taken from the desk.

"You're not nearly as good as you think you are." He laughed. "But my morning has been tedious, and it's so rare to find a human who even bothers to begin learning to use its voice—however clumsily." His own speech had the rich, melodious roll his species was famous, and infamous, for.

Her opening line had carefully aped one of the opening salvos a Darhel of equivalent or greater rank would use to initiate one of the stylized verbal confrontations that were the meat and potatoes of their intra-species dominance games.

"I don't believe I have the pleasure of your acquaintance," the other predator said.

"My name's Cally O'Neal, and I've come to have a few words with you about your attempts to murder my sister," she said. Again, her intonations were practiced, her body language and word choice carefully prepared.

"A human can change its name to anything, by your primitive rules. Your names are disposable, indicating nothing. As for the rest, it's nonsense, of course, but still amusing. You, of course, intend to upset me to the point that I freeze into a melodramatic death. I assure you our weakness is exaggerated, and I will be disposing of you to the proper security personnel in this interview's aftermath. For now, you may continue."

"Oh, but the Institute for the Advancement of Human Welfare is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Epetar Group, which also holds the human mentat Michelle O'Neal's contract for research on a certain device. A device, moreover, which the Tchpth," her pronunciation was perfect, "would be unhappy to find outside their museum on Barwhon." Head cocking to the side, just a bit. Shoulders just so. Sides of the lip curling in an expression never meant to inhabit a human face.

"How regrettable, for you, that you would make such an assertion. And how stupid of you to hush your AID before discussing this. Now I will have to turn you over to humans who will be, for whatever reasons, curious about how you came to know those things. I will, of course, know nothing of the means or ends. I will, however, receive a full report of the extracted information." He breathed deeply, effortlessly suppressing the qualms it had cost him to make even a roundabout physical threat. The Darhel behavioral tags in her voice, her body, her face were so insidiously familiar to him that it never crossed his mind to notice how wrong it should be that they were displayed on a human. Like a human hearing its own mother-tongue, regional accent in a speaker from anywhere, the pattern felt so mundane as to coast in under the intellectual radar of what should and shouldn't be.

"Of more amusement value to me is your choice of nom de guerre. You wish to bask in the reflected glory, alleged glory, of the O'Neal family, of course. But to claim the human mentat as your sister? What a transparent lie, even if you did find the correct name. Your features are nothing like Michelle O'Neal's, of course. And the sister died in a nuclear explosion in the war, at the hands of her own primitive killer of a father." His taunt took on a rich slur, an accent more inflected with the attributes of his own native tongue, even while he continued to speak English. For a Darhel, prizing as they did their psycholinguistic skills and the interspecies use of the voice for manipulation, this was a massive lapse.

"My features have changed, of course. I look very different from my childhood appearance when the Tir Dol Ron sent a team to kill me, and my grandfather, when I was eight Terran years old." She glanced off to the side, examining the nails of an elegantly cocked hand, as if he was beneath her notice.

Pardal sat straighter in his chair, ears pricked forward.

"You are, at that, remarkably well informed, for the pathetic, lying, glory-seeker that you are."

"As you are remarkably complacent for a Darhel facing not only a contract court, but the ignominy of triggering financial ruin for an entire group. You don't dare detain me, you know. My merely making these allegations to a contract court would cost you your job, simply for the incompetence of permitting the scandal. I have, of course, made prior arrangements to have the allegations delivered if I do not return."

"Preposterous exaggeration," he drawled, but breathed more deeply, accent thickening. "You begin to bore me."

"Expect your troubles to get worse, instead of better." She had cribbed one of the classic Darhel finale lines from their literature, typically delivered by a clear victor in one of these verbal cat fights. She could only hope the Indowy scholar had translated it accurately enough. As was customary, she had also delivered no specific threats. The purpose of these dominance struggles was never to do something, only to undermine the losing Darhel's personal confidence.

She turned to leave, to leave him knowing, intellectually, that he truly could not detain her and had just lost a dominance struggle of their own kind to a mere, primitive, human female.

She knew she had shaken him to the brink of rage when, knowing the interview was concluded and, inevitably, relaxing a bit from the taught wire of confrontation, he couldn't resist a parting shot, in his own tongue. "This isn't over!"

It had been a brief conversation. Its entire punch lay in the stylized nature of tone and body, play and counterplay, of Darhel interactions. This one moment was the goal of the entire playlet. He was now reacting to her not as he would to an impudent human, but as he would to a rival Darhel. Not completely, not consciously.

She touched the Provigil-C injector on one hip, driving the drug into her bloodstream. The buckley, prepped for her turn from the start, activated its holographic projection as she spun and leaped, spread eagled, teeth bared, ears flattened back against her head. Her yellow cat-pupilled eyes gleamed, feral. Her black hair and facial fur glinted with metallic silver. Her leap was imbued with all the skill of an avid dancer for counterfeiting the emotion of motion—even for dances alien to her own understanding.

The Darhel Pardal, aroused by the hormonal responses to an intense dominance conflict with his own kind, saw in that one single instant a rival Darhel leaping to kill him. His hindbrain overwhelmed his forebrain for that bare instant. Even as he realized that the leaping figure was a human woman and not a rival Darhel, the Tal poured into his system like floodwaters through a breached earthen dam. His rage redoubled with all the fury of a doomed thing for its killer.

The ravening beast, unleashed at last, exploded upward from the trappings of civilization, bounding off the desktop and crossing the room in an instant, claws out and teeth bared to rip out the throat of the Other. If the assassin had still been there to see it, he would have looked more like some hell-begotten cross between a fox and a werewolf than an Elf. The gray cloak billowed behind him and he paused for a tiny fraction of a second to rip it off, shredding it in the process.

That fraction of a second, combined with a similar fraction for the leap, was all the time it took Cally O'Neal to cross the office in the other direction, standing against the windows. It is an odd fact that for a skilled tumbler, across a short distance, a human being can roll faster than she can run. Running takes precious bits of time here and there starting and stopping, acting and reacting. A tumbling pass is smooth, continuous—if the athlete has the balance for it.

As a life-long dancer and martial artist, Cally's sense of motion was exquisite. If her balance had been a knife, she could have shaved with it. Her muscles, most importantly her upper body muscles, had the strength and speed of the latest Crab-designed upgrade. None of it saved her from getting batted into the remains of the desk with rib-cracking power. The dress shredded under Pardal's claws. The only reason he didn't get her flesh as well was the super-tough Indowy-crafted body-suit beneath the dress, which gave her a tougher hide than chain mail, while having none of the extra weight and causing no impairment to mobility.

She hit the desk and kept rolling, over the other side and onto her feet, bounding aside at an angle as one hundred and fifty kilos of rabid Darhel hit the spot she'd just left. He got her again, slamming her into the two-inch-thick glass with a force that wrenched her neck and knocked her head against the glass, making a sickening thud.

"Forty seconds and counting," the buckley announced from where it had landed on the floor about ten yards and five years ago, and the drug kicked in. For another split instant, Pardal turned with maddened eyes, locating the buckley on the floor. Barely hesitating, he obviously dismissed it as "not prey," launching himself at her again. Used to taking a punch, head crack or not, Cally hadn't stopped moving, and was halfway across the room again.

With the Provigil-C in her system, shaking her apart, with all the adrenaline and other combat hormones of her own, life dissolved into a sharp-edged, blurry game of Dodge the Darhel. Aware of everything and nothing, the instants rang off her brain like separately frozen photographic stills. All moments splintered into a constant progression of now as the buckley, now ignored completely by both, counted off the eternally slow seconds. Four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .

Seeing a Darhel collapse on holo was one thing. Having one chasing you do it was another. One second he was leaping, the next he was hitting the floor in a lazy roll himself. He simply stopped, curled into a seated position on the floor, naked except for his own fur, and the rage melted away, along with the last vestiges of intelligence in his eyes. His expression was the closest thing to beatific she'd ever seen on a Darhel face. It was downright creepy.

"You were right," she said, nudging him with a bare toe before looking for wherever she'd kicked her shoes off. "Now it's over."

There had been no risk of anyone coming into the office after Pardal lost it. They'd all heard stories and nobody, human or Indowy, wanted to be anywhere near a raging Darhel. Cally found the floor, in fact, deserted as she limped back to the bathroom to retrieve coat and purse. The coat was now strictly necessary, as she had to stuff what scattered strips of the cashmere dress as she'd been able to find in her purse. There hadn't been much. At one point in his fit, she'd seen Pardal eating some of it, so it wasn't hard to guess where the rest had gone. Certainly nobody would be looking for it inside his guts. Traditionally, they didn't do forensic investigations at all, a Darhel in lintatai being beneath contempt.

She went back to the destroyed office. The last thing she did before leaving his office for good, closing the door behind her, was to use her AID to jimmy his, leaving it a few seconds of memory the poorer, and still stuck in the hush box. For a Darhel, this kind of death scene constituted the ultimate in "natural causes."

She was still shaking uncontrollably when she walked down the last flight of stairs, out into the falling snow and biting wind, and into the back of Harrison's cab. The endorphins and Provigil-C released their grip, and she groaned as everything from the crack on her head to the muscles in her toes started to hurt.

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